July 24, 2019 Supporting Manhattan-area entrepreneurs, businesses, events

From Camper to Cabernet

Sponsored by: United Bank and Trust

David and Danielle Tegtmeier’s dream came with a view. It was just covered in red cedars when they got there. Five years later, the couple’s dream is on its way to reality thanks to hard work, an expertise in wine and cider making, and a belief in Flint Hills soil.

David and Danielle’s dream places the Kansas Flint Hills as the epicenter for Midwestern wines and ciders. The married couple said that they needed a showcase landscape to anchor their new venture, so they were looking in the northern Flint Hills around Manhattan.

But David said when they finally found the spot in 2014, the modest hilltop west of Manhattan where they would open and grow Liquid Art Winery and Estate, it was overtaken with cedar trees, which he calls “the plague of the Flint Hills.”

“We knew there was a view,” he said. “We just had to get rid of the cedar trees.”

Today, visitors who take the long driveway up to Liquid Art from Wildcat Creek Road are rewarded with the views the Tegtmeier’s could only imagine five years ago.

The Flint Hills are a 100 mile-wide corridor of rocky hills capped by tallgrass prairie, stretching from Manhattan into Oklahoma. It’s rarely been seen as ground fit for crops, where chunks of flint fight the plow every step of the way, but David said he saw something else in the land.

He studied winemaking in the French Bordeaux region, and according to him, the limestone-clay soils in the world-renowned wine region were strikingly similar to the soil composition of the Flint Hills.

So when he and Danielle decided, after getting their degrees from Fresno State University in California and Kansas State University followed by a few years working in the industry, they were ready to open a winery together, it made sense to do it here, close to home.

David grew up on a farm in northeastern Kansas and planted his first vineyard there when he was 15 years old, and even then, his grandfather told him it would be a waste of time to try it here.

“I had to prove him wrong,” David said with a smile.

If there’s one person in Kansas who can inspire awe and respect winemaking, it might be David. With degrees in enology, the study of wine, and viticulture, the study of grape vines, David speaks about his craft with a broad, almost philosophical perspective.

He noted the, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of variables that characterize a given glass of wine: grape variety, soil type, processing methods, the yeast, the temperature, the oxygen, how you pour it, the style of bottle, the style of glass, how warm it is, how long your hand is in contact with it, what you ate before that, what you eat with it. The list could go on.

“What I taste in a wine isn’t what you taste in a wine,” he said. “I think that’s what’s fascinated people for thousands of years about wine. It’s so complex that we don’t fully understand it now.”

In the years between the hillside thick with invasive cedar trees and what it is now, a refined and relaxed tasting room and event space surrounded by a few dozen acres of vineyards, there were stretches of intense physical, emotional and financial investment.

It began in the fall of 2014 with a camper at the bottom of the hill, where David and Danielle lived while they worked on starting the winery. Danielle recalls frigid nights, going to sleep in full winter gear and waking up to frozen water bottles in their fifth-wheel. They spent months just clearing the land to make space for the vineyards and estate.

“We were two kids just playing in the dirt,” Danielle said. “Nobody had heard about us.”

But when the couple connected with United Bank and Trust (UBT), David said they found someone who believed in their vision of the Flint Hills as a premiere Midwestern winemaking region and wanted to help them see it through.

“If you go into UBT and meet their tellers, you can just tell they care about their customers,” Danielle said. “To us they were very welcoming. They treated us like family.”

For Commercial Loan Manager Damen Scheele, supporting business owners’ journey is one the most rewarding part of the job: “It’s amazing to witness a customer’s hard work result in success, to watch their vision come to life, and know that you had a part in it.”

Danielle said working with a bank who has trusted them and supported them all along the way was a major boon to running their business. And the communication has played a big role in that confidence in one another, especially when their phone calls and emails to the bank are always answered right away.

“It’s important to surround yourself with people who care as much about your business as you do,” she said.

Scheele couldn’t agree more. “A lending relationship is a partnership between the customer and the bank. Even though there can be differences of opinions along the way, ultimately both want the business to succeed. Timely communication is key, be it good or bad, communication is the key to a successful relationship.”

David said before long, Liquid Art’s scale of production will outgrow its hilltop origins. With some 90 acres of vineyards, they’re currently producing around a quarter of all grapes grown in Kansas. No matter what, they expect the estate will remain the cornerstone of the business and of a growing Kansan wine scene: a monument to finding the view beyond the cedar trees.

“Don’t be afraid to go above and beyond what people think is possible, because that’s where the opportunity is,” David said. “It’s not in the known, it’s in the unknown.”

Jacob Zlomke is the fundraising and events director at Fly Over Media.

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